Frank Episale is an editor, writer, educator, and theatre artist living and working in Brooklyn. He holds a BFA from New York University, an MA from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and an MPhil from the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. This is his (infrequently updated) blog. He's pretty google-able, if you'd like to know more.

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Ender's Game (52 Films in 52 Weeks, #11)

Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (1985) is a problematic novel of flawed ideas that manages to remain compelling for a couple of reasons. First, the ideas are embedded in a story that can be interpreted in a number of ways, allowing a great many readers who would likely disagree with each other's politics to find validation in the novel. Second the young characters, while somewhat flatly written, are given enough time to grow on us, to develop, to face challenges and change in response to them, to learn things about themselves and each other. The combination of coming-of-age with hard-ish science fiction can be a compelling one when it works, or almost works.

Gavin Hood's 2013 film adaptation, in streamlining the narrative and trying to make a high-concept actionfest of the material, exposes some of the book's flaws while eliminating much of what has made it a favorite of science fiction fans for the past thirty years. Plot points are revealed too quickly, too little time is spent on world building, and the timeline of events and encounters is compressed to the point that character developments and decisions seem almost arbitrary. Ender's triumphs are not earned, because we don't see the struggles and dilemmas that lead to his realizations. We don't buy into his transformation into a leader, because we aren't allowed to witness him transforming at all.

Making things worse, Hood tries to keep the pace tight by relying on extremely short takes of the actors during their already too-brief scenes of dialogue. The mostly young cast, mostly with limited experience, don't have tme to find their way into their roles, and clearly weren't given the kind of directorial support they would have needed to deliver convincing performances. This is a little surprising, given that Hood began his career as an actor and should presumably know a little about what an actor needs to shine.

In an age of movies that are far too long, Ender's Game is too short to make sense of its own plot and themes. And in an age dominated by complex characters and virtuosic performances, Ender's Game fails to allow its actors the room to breathe. The result has some cool moments, but mostly feels shallow and forced.


[This was written as a contribution to a Facebook page called 52 Movies in 52 Weeks, the goal of which is to see and, time allowing, write about 52 films you haven't seen before. I have cross-posted this entry on that page.]  



Ice Poison (52 Films in 52 Weeks, #10)

I think what I admire most about Ice Poisona deeply sad film about labor, poverty, death, and desperation—is that it was not made for my edification. I can follow the basic story, of course, and identify many of the social issues at play, but director/writer Midi Z. has no interest in explaining the cultural, political, historical, and geographical nuances that make his characters and his story feel so tangible, so subtle, and so real. His trademark long takes from static cameras make it clear that the audience is being asked to witness, not necessarily to understand, and that he is more interested in documenting his characters than in educating his film festival–going audience. A film that tried to explicate all the factors that make up life, love, and business for characters who live in the liminal spaces of the working poor in Burma, China, Taiwan, and Malaysia would be doomed to failure whatever its intentions. Midi Z. refuses to judge his characters, even when they make what seem to be the worst possible decisions, and he refuses to allow his audience to believe that we can see the bigger picture, that we know something the characters don't. A call to action would be reductive and insulting. Midi Z. doesn't want "us" to fix, or even to understand, the situation he's placing before us; he does, though, think we should have to, or at least have the opportunity to, confront it, take it in, and deal with it on whatever terms we can or will. 

[This was written as a contribution to a Facebook page called 52 Movies in 52 Weeks, the goal of which is to see and, time allowing, write about 52 films you haven't seen before. I have cross-posted this entry on that page.]  


CARNAGE (52 films in 52 weeks, #9)

After finding Roman Polanski's Carnage (2011) to be surprisingly bad, I took to social media to find out what had gone wrong. Was the source material, Yasmina Reza's 2006 play God of Carnagethe English-language version of which was warmly received in London (2008) and then on Broadway (2009)really that overrated? Or was the adaptation to blame? My online coterie of theatre-snob friends and colleagues generally agreed that the answer is "both": it's an overrated play, adapted badly for the screen.

In any event, this was pretty disappointing for me. I'd enjoyed the trailer well enough when I saw it, and I expected the pedigree cast (Kate Winslet, Jodie Foster, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly), pedigree director, and pedigree playwright to at least be able to pull off a satisfying middlebrow entertainment. True, I've never been a huge fan of Reza (I don't understand all the fuss about Art, and I didn't care for Spain when I saw it at Classic Stage Company a few years back), but I've never thought her actually incompetent. And this play won the Olivier for Best New Comedy, so there must be something to it, right? Besides, the film, like the Broadway production, is set in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. I know these characters, and should be able to take some knowing pleasure in their onscreen skewering, yeah?

As it turns out, though, the setting is part of the problem. God of Carnage is a "glocal" play in that little details of the text are altered each time it receives a major production. Change the name of a park here and a flower shop there and you have a super specific local play, or at least one that feels local. With those details in place, the rest will play just fine (or so the theory goes). After all, this is a play that mocks the self-absorption and vanity of the upper middle class, pulling back the veneer of civilization and compassion and sophistication and revealing the frightened, petty, mean-spirited children lurking just below the surface. The shallowness and hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, this strategy suggests, is universal enough to feel "specific" as long as some lip service is paid to local details. 

Just as 7/11 selling different snacks in different cities doesn't make it feel like a mom & pop store, though, Carnage's Brooklyn-specific glocal touches don't really make it feel more grounded in a specific setting. The movie's inciting incident takes place in a park I frequent. The dialogue mentions a flower shop I walk by on a regular basis. Still, it somehow feels like the action is occurring nowhere in particular.

Is this because of Christoph Waltz's somewhat baffling non-accent? Is it because the film itself was shot in Paris (Polanski being unable to enter the United States)? These and other issues probably contributed, but it's the script (and the play it's adapted from) that seem to be the real culprit. Reza sets out to "unmask" and "reveal" her characters and, to be fair, some critics bought it. Philip French writes that:

Carnage belongs in a dramatic tradition of exposure, misogyny and painful-truth telling that descends from Strindberg through O'Neill to Osborne and Albee. It also fits neatly into Polanski's oeuvre as he approaches his 79th year. 

I agree with French that Carnage wants to be understood in this context and wants to be a part of this lineage, but here the intended "painful-truth telling" feels more like sneering hypocrisy. Reza and Polanski seem to feel separate from, and superior to, these characters, and this distance contributes to the sense of ungrounded generality that infuses the entire venture. Carnage never turns its ire on itself. We are invited to judge our neighbors, but not forced to confront that we share the same fears and failings. If you're going to attack the bourgeoise from within, you have to first acknowledge that you are part of them, as Reza and Polanski surely are. That kind of self-awareness might have enabled the specificity and bite that are missing here, and mitigated the smugness and emptiness that, in the end, make this film feel more like a parody of itself than incisive social commentary.

[This was written as a contribution to a Facebook page called 52 Movies in 52 Weeks, the goal of which is to see and, time allowing, write about 52 films you haven't seen before. I have cross-posted this entry on that page.]  


Throwback Review: Tarell Alvin McCraney's THE BROTHER/SISTER PLAYS

[This review originally appeared in the November 2009 issue of the CUNY Graduate Center Advocate. That issue is no longer available online. I have made a few minor corrections to the text of the review.]


Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
At 29 years old, playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has been crowned “a major new voice” by enough critics, directors, dramaturgs, and producers that there is already something of a backlash in the works. The New York Post’s Elisabeth Vincentelli recently dismissed McCraney’s success as that of “a lucky guy,” calling his work “precious,” “naïve,” and “affect[ed],” while Erik Haagensen, in Backstage, acknowledged that there is “much to admire” in McCraney’s work but continued to assert that the wunderkind’s dramaturgy is too often “ham-fisted,” “trite,” and “emotionally distancing.”

As much as it would be fun to play iconoclast, however, I’m afraid that in this case I have to side with the kingmakers: Tarell Alvin McCraney is the real deal.

His plays are neither flawless nor universal (though I suspect this latter adjective will be employed far too often in discussions of his work); they are too ambitious to be perfect, or to please everyone in every audience. These are challenging texts, in need of strong directors and skilled actors, and I have little doubt that some disappointing productions of McCraney’s plays will make their way around the regional and university theatre circuits in the coming years. Despite what some may say, however, needing a director does not lessen the value of a work. A play usually does, and usually should, require a director; the text alone is not theatre. And, for all their carefully crafted use of language, these plays are not intended to be read; the poetry they strive for is a poetry in four dimensions, embodied and in motion.

The Brother/Sister Plays, now playing in repertory at the Public Theater, is a series of three plays all set in the fictional town of San Pere Louisiana. Each play is meant to stand on its own, but the three together amplify one another, revisiting characters and families and viewing them from different angles, at different times, in different combinations. The first play in the trilogy, In the Red and Brown Water, is presented as Part I, while plays two and three, The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet are presented together as Part II. Each evening lasts about two hours on its own, or you can see all three plays (i.e., both “parts”) together in a “marathon” performance.

The aesthetic and narrative strategy of the plays is to marry the stories of a rural, lower and working class, African American community with the storytelling traditions that the playwright clearly believes to be the at the root of the theatrical impulse. More specifically in this case, McCraney has woven into his plays a number of references to Yoruba mythology; many of the characters in the play are named for Yoruba deities (Oya, Ogun, Oshoosi, Elegba, Egungen, etc.), their character traits and actions resonating with the myths referenced by their names.

In the Red and Brown Water introduces us to the people of San Pere and to the “Distant Present” in which McCraney has set the plays. Oya (Kianné Mischett), a promising high school track star, is torn between accepting a college scholarship or staying home to be with her ailing mother. She is courted by the cocky, sometimes cruel Shango (Sterling K. Brown) and by the sweet and stuttering Ogun (Marc Damon Johnson), and eventually finds herself pregnant, orphaned, and struggling to hold her world together. Along the way, we meet the mischievous, dangerously charming Elegba (André Holland), a trickster whose dreams may hold deeper meanings, as well as Ogun’s Aunt Elegua (Kimberly Hébert Gregory) and a number of tertiary characters who help flesh out the shape and feel of the community.

Water is directed by Tina Landau, who co-wrote The Viewpoints Book with SITI Company founder Anne Bogart. Viewpoints is a method of teaching movement and improvisation for actors and dancers, and has famously reinvigorated physical approaches to theatre in the West. Some of the techniques employed in Viewpoints training have become so commonplace as to result in clichéd sequences of gestures and poses that any educated actor recognizes as the products of a classroom exercise. At its best, though, Viewpoints provides actors with a common vocabulary that allows them to carve space with their bodies and shape the rhythm of a performance with their breath.

Water is among the best uses of Viewpoints-derived staging I’ve seen; it’s also the most successful work I’ve seen from Landau, whose productions have sometimes disappointed. The actors, most of whom are visible throughout the performance, become a (usually nonverbal) chorus when their respective characters are not the focus of the action. They breathe and pose and dance together, punctuating and underscoring the poetry and prose of the text and providing a supportive, communal backdrop for the work of their castmates. All of this ties in nicely to McCraney’s vision of theatre as a part of a longer oral tradition, a sharing of stories true and false, of histories and myths, memoirs and allegories, of mourning and of celebration.

Assured by the Public’s Web site that the plays need not be seen in order, I saw Part II before part I. While this meant I failed to catch a reference to previous events from time to time, it is probably they order I would recommend seeing the parts in, if only because Tina Landau’s gorgeous staging of In the Red and Brown Water is a hard act to follow. This is not to say, though, that The Brothers Size and Marcus are not successful stagings.

Director Robert O’Hara, an accomplished playwright in his own right (and one who was also once saddled with labels like “prodigy”) elicits athletic, disciplined performances from the actors, foregrounding the rhythmic muscularity of McCraney’s text. This is especially true of The Brothers Size, the most compact, and perhaps the best written, of the three plays. Brothers focuses on Ogun, older now, who has taken in his recently paroled younger brother Oshoosi (Brian Tyree Henry) and is trying to keep him out of trouble. Trouble is inevitable, though, with trickster/messenger Elegba also out of prison.

Marcus jumps ahead a generation to introduce us to its title character (Holland), who bears a striking resemblance to his father Elegba. In addition to the physical similarities, Marcus shares his father’s prescient dreams as well as some of his sexual appetites.

The acting, for the most part, admirably balances precision and passion. The performers are faced with no small task, as McCraney’s text demands that they step into, out of, and around their characters from moment to moment, and the two directors have envisioned the three plays with a number of different acting styles. McCraney often has his characters speak their own stage directions as if they were asides, not so much to distance us from the action as to reinforce the idea that the actor is always also a storyteller, and that narrative is at the heart of what theatre is. These actor-storytellers are more than up to the task, and it seems almost unfair to the top-notch ensemble to single out Henry’s furious, infectious energy, Holland’s dangerously vulnerable charm, or Gregory’s masterful timing and tone.

The deceptively minimal design work is first-rate as well, particularly Lindsay Jones’s sound and Peter Kaczorowski’s lights. Both of these elements pull focus when they are required to do so, but more often subtly support the work of the actors, gently and generously amplifying the directors’ visions of performer-driven productions.

As I’ve already hinted, these shows are not without their flaws. Water’s second act does not quite live up to the promise of its first, while Marcus fails to shed enough new light on the stock coming-of-age tropes upon which it relies too heavily. Despite these and other shortcomings, though, it seems clear that The Brother/Sister Plays will be remembered as a highlight of the 2009–2010 theatre season. McCraney’s efforts to marry the quotidian with the mythic and the gritty with the cosmic will be criticized by some as pretentious, but I never felt he was trying to inflate the importance of these very personal stories so much as he was reminding us that mythology is personal too, that the telling of stories, whatever their scope or provenance, is always less about connecting us to our invented gods than it is about connecting us to one another.


The Brother/Sister Plays by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Part I: In the Red and Brown Water, directed by Tina Landau. Part II: The Brothers Size and Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, directed by Robert O’Hara. Sets by James Schuette; costumes by Karen Perry; lights by Peter Jaczorowski; sound by Lindsay Jones; vocal arrangements by Zane Mark.  With Sterling K. Brown, Kimberly Hébert Gregory, Brian Tyree Henry, André Holland, Marc Damn Johnson, Royce Johnson, Vanessa A. Jones, Kevin Kelly, Sean Allan Krill, Angela Lewis, Nikkiya Mathis, Kianné Muschett, Hubert Point-Dejour, and Heather Alicia Simms. Running in repertory through December 13th at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Avenue. Tickets $60 ($25 student tickets available in person at the box office).


Ella's Story

photo courtesy of Angela Episale

My niece, Ella, is three and a half years old and likes to tell scary and suspenseful stories. Here's her latest:

It was a stormy night. And I was drinking from my water bottle. And a monster truck crushed me. And I farted. And I didn't say 'excuse me.' And I was all alone. And I was older.

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